By Ramanath Jha
In 2017, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, announced the launch of the nation’s futuristic and fully automated business zone, NEOM. This hi-tech business hub, to be located in the Tabuk province in the northwestern part of Saudi Arabia along the Red Sea coast, is to be established at a cost of US $500 billion (INR 37.5 lakh crore). The region has been selected in view of its relatively mild climate. Most of Saudi Arabia has a desert climate with extremely oppressive day temperatures of above 45° Celsius. The project’s total area is slated to be 26,500 square kilometre and will link Jordan and Egypt via Saudi territory. The project is expected to generate 380,000 jobs and contribute US $48 billion (INR 36,000 crore) to the kingdom’s GDP by 2030.
More recently, in Jan 2021, the Crown Prince also announced that, as part of the NEOM project, a zero-carbon city called ‘The Line’ would be set up. The Crown Prince labelled the city project as a “civilisational plan that puts humans first”. ‘The Line’ is crafted as a linear city for one million people, running 170 kilometre long, with a width that would be walkable in five minutes. It is anticipated that people from all over the world would be drawn by the city’s excellent environment, state-of-the-art infrastructure and superior quality of life.
‘The Line’ is not designed to be a conventional city but a futuristic one. A city’s usual amenities such as schools, hospitals, and gardens will be carefully crafted in view of the residents’ expected proclivity towards the availability of top-quality education, health, and recreation. Additionally, the city would position itself as a top tourist destination. The Saudi administration also seeks to dispel any misgivings about the governance model that ‘The Line’ would follow. The entire NEOM area, including ‘The Line’, will be a free trade zone with its own tax structure and an autonomous legal system.
The technological and environmental plans of the “zero cars, zero streets, and zero carbon emissions” city have drawn the most attention. Drawings of ‘The Line’ show the city infrastructure and services arranged in three layers. The top layer, above ground, will be a pedestrian layer. It will be supported by two underground layers. The one immediately below ground will be the service layer of physical infrastructure. And further below the service layer will be the spine layer for transport. Project proponents stated that “High-speed transportation, utilities, digital infrastructure and logistics will be seamlessly integrated in dedicated spaces running in an invisible layer along The Line”. The high-speed transit is being designed to reach people anywhere in the city within 20 minutes. Alternately, people could walk to conveniences within five minutes. Artificial intelligence will have a critical role in the city. ‘The Line’ would be powered by 100 percent clean energy, rendering the city pollution-free, healthy, and sustainable. The city would be run totally on smart city technologies. Robots will play a key role in the areas of security, logistics, home delivery, and provision of care.
It is expected that the city infrastructure would cost between US $100 to 200 billion (INR 7.5 to 15 lakh crore). Investments are planned to be drawn from the US $500 billion allocated for NEOM, the Public Investment Fund (PIF) which is the Saudi’s sovereign wealth fund, and local and global investors over 10 years. Construction on the project’s first phase has already begun. NEOM Bay, some hotel complexes, and luxurious apartments have been completed. In 2019, the NEOM Bay Airport was inaugurated. A huge complex of palaces for the Saudi king, prince, and royal family members has also been started.
NEOM and ‘The Line’ are projects with a larger objective. As the world moves towards a non-oil-based future, Saudi Arabia, as the largest producer of oil, finds its economy threatened unless it finds alternate sources of wealth creation. Global trade and tourism would be the key areas for Saudi’s new economy. NEOM, backed by ‘The Line’ as the first fully automated city, could emerge as the leading global destination. In this, there is commonality between Saudi Arabia and the other gulf countries. Bahrain (Economic Vision 2030), Oman (Vision 2040), Qatar (National Vision 2030), UAE (Vision 2021) and Saudi Arabia (Vision 2030) are all seeking to diversify their economies and reduce dependence on oil.
Information on many areas in regard to ‘The Line’ are scarce. However, based on the material available, a broad assessment is possible. Firstly, the history of megaprojects in Saudi Arabia has not been happy. “The Saudi landscape is already dotted with failed or abandoned megaprojects”. Furthermore, such projects do not always turn out the way they are planned. Adverse turns in the global economy, cost overruns, and reduced financial returns on investment are some of the most common failings. Even if the above cited observations are dismissed as speculation, the fact is that this urban endeavour incorporates certain technologies that do not exist. Robot maids, dinosaur robots, and flying cars are still in the making. Neither are high-speed transits today capable of speeds of 512 kilometre per hour, which the city would require for end-to-end travel in 20 minutes.
Furthermore, irrespective of whatever kind of city one builds, a city’s foundational philosophy ought to remain the same. The quality of a city rests on its economy, its environment, and its equity. A city that overstates one to the detriment of the others imbalances itself and over time becomes unsustainable. The project proponents have talked profusely about the economic, technological, and environmental angles, but nothing is known about how equitable the city would be and who could afford to live there.
NEOM and The Line, as cited earlier, would be governed by a set of laws different from Saudi Arabia. But given the nature of the Saudi polity, where some of the governance practices are among the most regressive, uncomfortable incongruities for residents may surface. Since the city is looking for people to move in from the rest of the world, such concerns may not enthuse populations to move in. Saudi Arabia is not very kind to dissent; hence, very few voices of disagreement from inside the country have emanated. Some have mildly sought to remind the Saudi administration that there is no point spending billions of dollars on a totally new venture when the already existing Saudi cities were in a state of disrepair and needed fixing.
The Saudi administration highlights its environmental concerns and is planning to build a totally eco-friendly city. As the Crown Prince said, “Why should we sacrifice nature for the sake of development? Why should seven million people die every year because of pollution? Why should we lose one million people every year due to traffic accidents?” However, this does not seem to be practiced on the ground. The city’s construction is cutting “through its surroundings, forcing its way through tough terrain rather than embracing natural features such as the coast line.”
The Saudi administration also faces criticism on account of the attempt to evict the 20,000-strong Howeitat tribe from its centuries-old homeland that falls within the territory of NEOM. The tribe is resisting eviction. When leaders of the tribe protested, several from the leadership found themselves behind bars. The most vocal critic of them all, Alya Abutayah Alhwaiti, lost his life. The negative publicity was sought to be countered through a public relations exercise, crafted by an American PR company. However, much of the disquiet around the project remains.